WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama appeared Saturday to beleaning toward appointing a third Republican to his Cabinet, a movethat would place the fiscally conservative Sen. Judd Gregg at thehead of the Commerce Department even though a liberal Democrat wasinitially tapped for the post.
The appointment of the New Hampshire Republican -- his latefather was a close ally of former President George H.W. Bush -- alsocould bring the Senate closer to the 60-vote majority Democratsneed to thwart Republicans seeking to filibuster legislation.However, there was no guarantee that New Hampshire'sindependent-minded governor would replace Gregg with a Democrat.
Republicans privately hoped Gregg would negotiate a deal thatwould allow the GOP keep the seat. Some suggested party eldersWarren Rudman or Walter Peterson while others pointed to DougScamman, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House and one ofLynch's Republican allies.
Gregg is the leading candidate to become commerce secretary, anObama administration official said Saturday. A decision could comeas soon as Monday, according to the official, who spoke oncondition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized todiscuss administration deliberations.
Gregg's spokeswoman had no comment Saturday. The senatoracknowledged Friday that he was being considered to lead theCommerce Department, though Republicans were urging him to thinkcarefully about what changing jobs would mean to the GOP.
Obama's Cabinet already has two Republicans: Defense SecretaryRobert Gates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush andthen asked by Obama to remain; and former Rep. Ray LaHood ofIllinois, who did not seek re-election to the House in 2008 andsoon after was named transportation secretary.
Gregg, who devised the $700 billion banking bailout package lastyear, would be a strong ambassador to the business community. Hewould also have huge sway over the 2010 Census that lawmakers willuse to redraw congressional districts to reflect states'populations and determine their electoral votes in futurepresidential contests.
If Gregg were nominated, it would be a switch politically fromObama's first choice, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. An Obamarival during the 2008 presidential campaign and a traditional partyliberal, Richardson bowed out shortly after he was nominated when agrand jury investigation over how state contracts were issued topolitical donors threatened to cloud his confirmation hearings.
Gregg is a member of a New Hampshire political family. Hisfather, Hugh Gregg, who died in 2003, was governor of the state andallied politically with the elder Bush as he sought the presidencyin 1980.
The younger Gregg, a policy wonk, rose through the Senate ranksto serve as chairman of the powerful Budget Committee and theAppropriations subcommittee that funds homeland security. Now inthe minority, he is the ranking Republican member on the BudgetCommittee but still has large sway in the GOP's response to Obama'slegislative agenda.
Democrats hold a 56-41 majority in the 100-member Senate and twoindependents caucus with them. The Senate seat from Minnesotaremains undecided, with Sen. Norm Coleman and challenger Al Frankenin a close, court-based contest.
Yet New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat and a politicalmoderate, could easily appoint a Republican to replace Gregg,senior Democrats have told supporters in private conversation.Democrats fret that Lynch is likely to appoint a "placeholder"senator who would not seek the office in 2010, thus spoiling achance for legislative dominance by the Democrats for the next twoyears.
During the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary,Lynch attended an event for Republican John McCain and had kindwords for the popular-in-New Hampshire figure. He also named GOPstar Kelly Ayotte his attorney general as part of a centristgoverning style that has given him a careful coalition, althoughmany doubt he would seek a fourth term or higher office himself.
Gregg, meanwhile, faces a tough re-election in 2010. His statehas shifted toward Democrats in recent years and his role in thebanking rescue plan would complicate a re-election bid in the"Live Free or Die" state the proudly rebukes government spendingand has no general income tax.